The Drive 100: The Greatest Innovations of 2015

If you didn’t know, now you know.

byThe Drive Staff| PUBLISHED Dec 20, 2015 4:59 PM
The Drive 100: The Greatest Innovations of 2015

Every day through Dec. 23, the writers and editors of The Drive are bringing you the essential guide to the year in car culture. Divided across 10 core categories, The Drive 100 is a celebration and send-up of the year that was. Check back tomorrow for: Train Wrecks.

BMW Direct Water Injection

BMW’s direct water injection isn’t new technology. Drag racers have used it for decades, and the idea dates back at least as far as World War II, when it was used in piston-engined aircraft. The concept is simple: Water is injected into the intake plenum to control the intake air temperature. The cooled air is more dense, bringing with it more precious oxygen, and lower air temperatures allow for higher compression ratios without fear of knocking. Working its magic behind BMW’s turbochargers and intercoolers, the water injection system results in performance gains just everywhere it matters, including fuel economy. While BMW first demonstrated the system on its MotoGP safety car, it’s since made the move to the production M4 GTS and been demonstrated in a 1 Series hatchback with a B38 three-cylinder engine. It won’t be long before you find the tech under your hood as well.—Chris Cantle, West Coast editor

2016 Chevrolet Camaro HVAC controls

One could be forgiven for imagining, after encountering the 2010 Camaro’s interior, that such a an environment could never rise to innovation—bogged down, as it was, with low-rent plastic, unreadable gauges and the tiller off a catamaran. Things have changed, though. As part of a host of upgrades, the ‘16 Camaro receives trick air vents. They’ve got a knurled aluminum look, like those in the fancy Audi R8. But in a sweet combo of form and function, the surrounds adjust the temperature: right for warmer, left for colder. That’s the kind of top design you don’t always expect in a base Chevy. Good on them. It’s seamless, and beautiful.—Ben Keeshin, staff writer

BMW 7 Series Gesture Control

In 2015, BMW invited us all (or at least those of us with roughly $100,000 to drop on a full-size luxury sedan) to play Rock Paper Scissors behind the wheel. For all the tactile pleasures of knurled knobs, soft-touch plastics and open-pore wood, BMW thinks the next hot interior material is the air molecule. Gesture Control, which allows a driver to adjust volume, answer or reject calls and select playlists and such with defined finger gestures in mid-air, feels for the moment more party trick than industry breakthrough. But watch this space over 2016, and count the bandwagoneers that hop aboard.—Jonathan Schultz, deputy editor

Ford GT Le Mans Race-car Aero

Starting next year, rule changes will allow GTE-class Le Mans race cars more horsepower and a lower minimum weight requirement. Also: expansion of “freedom boxes,” those areas of the road car that engineers are allowed to open up for aero. Translation? Redesigned front underwings and wild, deregulated rear diffusers. We got our first peek back in June, when the race-spec Ford GT debuted in France. Sweet fancy Moses. The new aero’s downright gnarly. And, rumor has it, all that loony kit makes GTE cars three seconds quicker each lap at Le Mans. Innovation at its finest.—Max Prince, senior editor

The Democratized HUD

Though they were a joke in the Eighties when they first began appearing, head-up displays have become, in recent years, de rigueur for luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Cadillac and Jaguar: crisper, bigger, more colorful and containing richer information and graphics. Now, they’re finding their way into lower-priced vehicles like Minis and Mazdas, and we’re in favor. Whenever I drive a car equipped with a good one, I rarely look at the instrument panel. Maybe it’s time to give that space over to something more useful, like a microwave to heat up my vegan-patty-melt-in-a-cup?—Brett Berk, writer-at-large

Jet Performance Quadrajet Carburetors

Innovation? I hate innovation. When they come out with some technology that'll get people to quit driving like assholes, maybe I'll get excited. Until then, I'll simply have to sing the praise of the high-performance Quadrajet carburetors sold by Jet Performance. When attached to the right engine, these four-barrelled monsters make plenty of power and don’t involve any computer hassles as they mix air and fuel at near-perfect ratios. Long live analog power!—Benjamin Preston, writer-at-large

BMW 7 Series Display Key

It was only a matter of time: a car key that acts like a smartphone. With its 2.2-inch Gorilla Glass screen, BMW’s Display Key can remote-control the new 7 Series into a garage—but not for American owners, until our regulators deem it worthy. The chunky fob can also remotely start or heat the car, and show statuses such as fuel level, driving range and locking. It’s a key smart enough to presage its own obsolescence: Since these functions and more could easily reside on the smartphone you already carry, why not do away with ignition keys entirely?—Lawrence Ulrich, chief auto critic

Escort Live

How many consumer electronic devices work perfectly for 25 years? None? Wrong. One. The Valentine 1 Radar Detector. It was missing only one feature: Connectivity. While Valentine rested on their laurels, arch-rival Escort added connectivity, cut a deal with Waze and left the V1 in the dust. Maybe permanently. Escort Live merges crowdsourced police location data from Waze with the functionality of connected Escort devices. You can use it for free, but buy the Premium version and an Escort 360, and you have the only radar detector/app combination worth buying. Used together, they turn every competing product into an overpriced brick. (Free; $49/year for Premium, or 1/yr included with an Escort 360. You want the 360. Trust me.)—Alex Roy, editor-at-large

Porsche 911 Front-Axle Lift System

Everyone loves a sculptured front fascia and low ground clearance, but no one wants to hear that dreaded shredding sound as you scrape your front bumper on an angled patch of road. Porsche alleviates the terror with its new front-axle lift system for the 2016 911 Carrera models. The lift system will bring the vehicle’s front end 1.5 inches above standard ground clearance, and can remain in effect until the vehicle reaches 21 mph.—Max Goldberg, assistant editor

Audi Self-Driving Track Car

Two of our staffers raced a self-driving Audi on track this year. We drove an Audi on a racetrack and set a lap time. Then, a nearly identical Audi drove itself and set a lap time. Man vs. robot! In my case, the self-driving Audi actually beat me, at Sonoma last summer. While autonomous cars have been making headlines for years, this episode strikes me as the clearest indication yet that this technology is ready for public roads. The year 2015 will also be remembered, I predict, as the year the car manufacturers (Audi and Tesla chief among them) pulled ahead of Google in the race to bring autonomous cars to the masses. In other words: Yes, our cars are now smarter than we are. —A.J. Baime, editor-at-large

Bonus: Tesla Model S Autopilot

It seems like an obvious choice, and it’s not a popular one among some of my brethren—that’s you, Alex Roy—but it’s a watershed technology and it arrives in arguably the most important car to hit the streets in decades, the Tesla Model S. The Autopilot is a semi-autonomous innovation that uses some heavy-duty hardware—radar, forward-looking cameras, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors that can “see” 16 feet around the car “in every direction at all speeds,” and a digitally-controlled electric assist braking system—to drive the car when you don’t feel like it. Mercedes, Audi and Hyundai all have similarly-equipped cars, but none with as robust a set-up. Love Tesla or hate Tesla, this much is true: Autopilot is the start of something extraordinary in the transportation of humans.—Mike Guy, editor